Next-generation timekeeping

Researchers have successfully demonstrated a ‘space-proof’ cold atomic clock for hyper-accurate, long-term time measurement.

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A research group from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led by Liang Liu, has demonstrated the operation of a cold atomic clock (CAC) in orbit.

CACs utilize lasers to cool atoms before analysing their oscillations, resulting in hyper-accurate time measurement with greater long-term stability over traditional ‘hot’ atomic clocks. The team behind the Cold Atom Clock Experiment in Space (CACES) mission say that developing a CAC for space use has the potential to fuel the next generations of satellite navigation and time-keeping systems.

Backed by the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), the team’s atomic clock launched to space on the 15th September 2016 and ran continuously for 15 months aboard China's Tiangong-2 space laboratory. The techniques and knowledge used in the production of the CAC may also find utility in other cold atom physics applications, including the development of spaceflight sensors. 


Read the full report at Nature Communications.

Cover photo: A rendering of the Tiangong-2 space laboratory (left) docked to the automated cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1. Image courtesy of the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA).

Kristopher James Kent

Freelance journalist,

I'm a freelance writer and journalist who produces content for Nature, the Nature Partner Journals, and magazines from international universities and government science institutes. I write across a broad range of science topics, though my primary interests lie within medical science, science policy, disability, and mental health.